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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Candidates muddy the waters on bill

McCain and Obama become mired in semantics over a measure last year to restore the Everglades.

June 07, 2008|Terry McDermott | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Judging by the only metric that seemed to count Friday -- the number of dueling conference calls -- the general-election battle between John McCain and Barack Obama has begun in earnest.

The subject was the proper care and funding of a big swamp in Florida. McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, took a scheduled tour of the Everglades, but before he even dipped a toe in the muddy water, he had set off a round of "he said, he said" criticism.

In answering a question Thursday at a meeting of Florida newspaper editors, the candidate explained that he voted last year against a measure that would have helped restore the Everglades because it was an omnibus spending bill larded with congressional pork. But McCain made it clear that he supported restoring the wetland and would have voted for it in a stand-alone piece of legislation.

Obama's campaign quickly attacked McCain's statement, saying the Arizona senator didn't know what he was talking about. "When it's clear you don't even know what you're objecting to, it's simply unbelievable to claim that your objection was based on principle," said Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Then, in a statement featuring a lot of capital letters, the campaign added that the bill McCain had opposed "WAS NOT AN OMNIBUS BILL BUT A MUCH MORE SPECIFIC, NARROW WATER-PROJECTS BILL SUPPORTED BY FLORIDA REPUBLICANS."

This is where both sides seem to be in the right -- and in the wrong.

The characterization of the bill as an omnibus spending measure didn't originate with McCain but with the editor who asked the question. McCain may have erred in accepting the entire characterization, but he was correct in saying it was an omnibus bill. (It did include several hundred water projects around the country.)

However, the legislation was not a spending measure. It simply would have authorized the projects to go forward, but with no money attached to pay for them.

The Obama camp scheduled a conference call Friday morning to reinforce its critique, putting two Florida Democrats -- former Sen. Bob Graham and state Rep. Dan Gelber -- on the line to lambaste McCain.

Noticing that, the McCain campaign scheduled its own conference call to follow and, as a place-holder, rebutted what it assumed was going to be more criticism by pointing out that Obama's campaign co-chairwoman, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, had joined McCain in voting against the bill in question.

The Democratic phone call went on as scheduled. Graham said McCain had a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the bill he had voted against. Gelber said: "I don't know if he's simply out of touch or if he just doesn't care."

Then came the GOP call. Two Florida Republicans attacked Obama -- who as a senator from Illinois last year voted for the water-projects measure -- as a captive of big government and pork-barrel spending. Remarkably, one of the Republicans, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, acknowledged that he himself had supported the bill in question:

"I've worked with Sen. McCain on Everglades restoration as long as I've been in Congress. It's important to note that out of $23 billion in the water bill -- a bill that I supported, having to hold my nose because of the issues that Sen. McCain correctly points out -- only $2 billion was for Everglades restoration.

"I voted for it because I was being parochial. I represent the entirety of the Everglades. Sen. McCain, thankfully, doesn't play that game."

When McCain finally arrived at the Everglades, local advocates of the restoration briefed the senator on their efforts and the need for federal funding. The site of the briefing was an alligator wrestling pit.

John Ogden of Audubon of Florida told McCain: "We can't assume the [marshland] system is waiting for us to save it. It will actually continue to decline."

McCain agreed. Then after swooping around a portion of the Everglades in an airboat for 30 minutes, he attacked the Obama campaign for attacking him. He said the water bill authorized more than 900 projects but funded none, leaving that task to Congress' appropriations committees.

"That's the game in Washington," he said. "Now the appropriations committee can pick which one of those projects are funded. That's how you get museums funded rather than the Everglades restored. . . . I'm disappointed Sen. Obama has become part of the same old system."

Remember, Friday's back-and-forth was about a policy -- restoring the Everglades -- that both candidates endorse. This is shaping up to be a summer with a great many conference calls.

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terry.mcdermott@latimes.com

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